salmon fishingI watched Salmon Fishing In Yemen yesterday, and it got me to thinking about house maintenance. The connection between the two I hope will become clearer in a moment.

In the movie, a rich Sheik (Is there any other kind?) loves to fly fish for salmon at one of his Scottish castles, and wants to bring the sport home to his beloved desert. In spite of how preposterous, or visionary, this might sound, the movie is exceptionally well acted and well written. I highly recommend it.

Yesterday, in my own little kingdom, I re-stained our 1000 square foot deck with the able assistance of Nettie, and this morning I’m at work on the deck’s fencing and bannisters. A big job to say the least. So what? You may ask. Yes, indeed, so what? Well, only this…

In the period of nearly two years after my rather lowly high school graduation, I was employed in a variety of rather lowly jobs, all of them involving hands-dirty, back-aching labor of some kind and none of them paying more than about $10 a day, which was crappy pay even in 1969. Of course, the perks for me, if they can be called “perks,” of such a sketchy lifestyle and life-aptitude included the inebriated entertainments of the sort quite common in the Sixties.

One man I worked for, Otto Hoefke, was a house painter, and a damn good one, too. He was a German and also a former Nazi, not by choice he assured me, who told me in his thick accent that he spent the war in a Russian gulag and suffered more than my Polish father, who had fled Poland in ’39 and spent the war in what Otto referred to as the “comfy RAF” in Lincoln, England. I didn’t argue with him, he was my boss after all and I was only 18, but I’m certain now that measures of suffering cannot be gauged by deprivation and Russian winters alone…to put it mildly.

In any case, Otto was a hell of a painter and a damn fine teacher of painting as well. The key to good, fast painting, incidentally, is a wet brush and a saturated roller. Otto ran our little crew like a well-drilled army, and the penalty for a dry brush or roller could lead to a court martial. After working with him for just six months, I could paint a typical middle-class bedroom in 20 minutes, and I mean the flat paint and the enamel trim! At first, I was proud of that little achievement.

And then, later, I became somewhat embarrassed by it. You see, I went to college.

I took the stairway to the elevated ivory tower of literature. I wouldn’t call myself an intellectual in the remotest sense, but I did get a decent education by the time I’d dropped out of my Ph.D. program (explanation at some latter date) and terminated my schooling with a Masters Degree in English. I taught English for awhile, and then began a white collar career with my own marketing company, and engaged in many skirmishes with the literary world and the Hollywood Dream Factory.

All the while, however, I continued my ways of labor around the house. I built a fence if a fence needed building. I painted every room in the house when necessary. I wall-papered the hallway two or three times, and I have dismantled, repaired, or installed innumberable light fixtures, sprinkler systems, garden timers, garbage disposers, pool pumps, jacuzzi filters, salt water systems, ceiling fans, radiators, transmissions, toilets, floors, ceilings, windows, doors, on and on the list goes, including elements of the emerging techy world, such as wireless networks, websites, and even a sonic gopher trap. Most of these tasks I performed to save money in our lean years following college, and later I continued because I was better at it than the people we employed.

leaning in 47 Chevy


And yet, while I did these things, there was always a tiny measure of resentment that bloomed somewhere in my gut that made me feel as if I were doing something that was now beneath the college-educated me.

My father was a mechanic and a body ‘n fender man, who before the War had a dream of becoming an opera singer, and filled our home with music and song, most often while under the influence of his own choice of inebriation it’s true, but be that as it may.

Finished 47 Chevy


I once rebuilt a 1947 Chevy from the ground up with some obvious psychological nod to him; and though I never sang a decent tenor, I did write the libretto for an opera some years ago that made the stage and played on PBS.

Deck Paint


Yesterday, though, something finally rang clear in my head, something I’ve known and forgotten many times. When I went outside and began to pull the blue tape off the trim lines of my newly stained deck, I felt a dramatic sensation of pride radiate through me, pride at the work I’d done, pride in the ability I have to accomplish a great variety of manual labor tasks. I understood again and infinitely more deeply this time that these tasks are no different in their essential nature from the chiseling and sanding I do with the sentences I write, or the drilling and bolting together of the paragraphs I struggle with, or the hammering into shape of the chapters and books and screenplays I surrender to.

The point is, the essential things remain. Those elements at the core of us are unchangeable and are, in fact, our treasures.

And what does Salmon Fishing In Yemen have to do with any of this?

Wild jumping slamon


Well, the salmon that were brought to Yemen to fill the artificial river in the desert so the Sheik could catch them were not the wild salmon of English streams where such wild salmon live and where wild salmon “run” up-stream each breeding season. Instead, these salmon were farmed salmon spawned in huge water tanks under artificial conditions.

So the essential question of the movie asks whether these pampered, corn-fed, caged salmon (think, white-collar salmon) actually know how to “run” up river? Will these salmon find their essential nature? Are these salmon still wild at their core, in their DNA? Are they the salmon we hope for them to be?

I’m sure you know the answer to this one. Just look inside yourself. The answer is waiting for you there.




5 Responses to At The Core

  1. Mary E. says:

    What a connection Frankie!! Well done!

  2. Frank Z says:

    Thanks for the great comments. I appreciate your thoughts and the time you spent reading and comment.


  3. Anonymous says:

    Some uncomfortable truths there Frank, but inspirational too. Takes me back to our childhood days in Lincoln – there was nothing our folks couldn’t turn their hands to. Wish I had taken more notice! How about taking a trip ‘Down-Under’ to teach me some of those home maintenance tricks – would love to catch up with you and Annette! Love to all, Mary

    • Frank Z says:

      Mary, You’re offer is tempting. Annette and I have been talking about coming to visit you for some time. Maybe we can put it together in 2014. Drop me a line at my email please for details. Cheers! fz

  4. Steve says:

    Frank – This is very thought provoking. I sometimes have what I think are similar thoughts: I grew up in a blue-collar household where we (my dad, mom, sister and me) did all the work ourselves; now Katie and I have two boys who are growing up in a white-collar household where we have a gardener and a housekeeper, we take the cars to the car wash and Jiffy Lube instead of doing these things ourselves, And I think that most of our friends are this way as well. I feel like my time is better spent with our boys and our family, but I still sometimes wonder if our boys and a our friends’ kids, and possibly a generation or two, are missing out on learning the value of manual labor, i.e. mowing the lawn, pulling weeds, sweeping the back patio, cleaning the house, painting, etc. Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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